Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

The right response to TUV rise is to make Stormont work

Polls apart: Jim Allister addresses supporters at the count as Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson looks on
Polls apart: Jim Allister addresses supporters at the count as Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson looks on

The elephant in the room at the recent European election is that the TUV and Ukip got more than 100,000 votes between them. Nobody saw that right-wing tide coming quite so far up the beach or, if they did see it, they didn't say so publicly.

It should be a wake-up call to our political elites. Jim Allister's 75,806 first preference votes, in particular, is a direct message to Sinn Fein and the DUP that Stormont is not working. That was the message Mr Allister stressed in his TV appearances.

Everyone had heard of him and most considered him an effective politician. People like the idea of placing a thorn in the side of the big, complacent DUP and Sinn Fein machines.

So it was partly a protest vote, a vote of no confidence in the way that Stormont is being run. In the European poll, the TUV, the most eurosceptic party available, got 1,582 transfers from Alliance, which is arguably the most Euro-friendly. There is a sneaking – sometimes not-so-sneaking – regard for his abilities on all sides.

He touched a popular nerve, as did other Right-field parties across Europe. In Britain, Nigel Farage's Ukip beat the Tories into third place. In France, the far-Right National Front got 26% of the vote on an anti-immigrant ticket, although it has only three members in the national parliament. People who voted for these parties may get more than they bargained for if they follow through in the general election, or, in the case of Northern Ireland, in the Assembly polls, as well.

We saw that at the count when the TUV behaved like a 1980s DUP tribute band. Mr Allister refused to congratulate Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson, who topped the poll, and his supporters turned their backs on her. They shouted "No Surrender" when their own vote was announced.

One Jim Allister is useful at Stormont, harrying the government and holding it to account. He helps fill the void left by the lack of an Opposition.

On a canvass with him in a previous election, I asked people who promised him a vote if they wanted Sinn Fein thrown out of government. It was a small sample, but not one answered yes.

Most said that, while Sinn Fein in government wasn't what they would prefer, the alternative would be worse. They valued Mr Allister for his hard work and his effectiveness.

If the TUV dominated unionism, things might look different. The fact is that Sinn Fein is the largest nationalist party – in fact, the largest party of any kind – and is likely to remain so for some time, so refusing to deal with it would have very serious implications for political stability.

It would be an end to partnership government. It would push the Sinn Fein vote even higher, or lead to the rise of some harder line party, as nationalists and Catholics looked to a strong voice to defend them.

It is a fact in Northern Ireland that when one community takes an extreme stance, the other community circles the wagons in response. That is what has led to conflict in the past.

The more pressing danger is that a frightened DUP will now try to move on to Mr Allister's ground out of fear. It is, after all, territory which they occupied when he was a member so it is already familiar to them.

That would not be leadership. The correct response to the TUV advance is not to retreat into the past in panic; it is to make Stormont work for the benefit of all.

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